John Chico, who lives on the East Side, and Deandre Taylor, who comes from the Englewood community, enrolled at Jones College Prep because they felt they could obtain a better education than at their neighborhood schools. As a bonus, they could also play basketball.
Chico's older brother and Taylor's sister were Jones graduates. They recommended the school, which ranks No. 9 academically among all public schools in the state. It features a selective enrollment for its 820 students. The average ACT score is 25.5.
"It's hard to get into this school," said basketball coach and athletic director Frank Griseto. "We take them as freshmen and teach them that the commitment level has to be there for athletics like it is in academics. They don't go to college to play basketball. They are students first. But that doesn't lessen their commitment to be competitive. They are driven and focused. They want to be successful."
Like every student at Jones, Chico and Taylor balance sports and books. Chico, who also is an outstanding baseball player, wants to be a sports trainer or sports psychologist. Taylor wants to major in mechanical engineering in college.
They have collaborated on a basketball team that is 18-3 going into the Public League playoff. Not bad for some kids who played on a sophomore team that won only three games. In its last two outings, the newly crowned CPS Blue Central champion edged Tilden 70-66 as Taylor had 25 points and 12 rebounds and Dyett 55-53 as Chico scored 15 points.
"This is the best team I've had," said Griseto, comparing it to his 23-5 team in 2005 that lost to eventual state champion Hales Franciscan in the regional. "They are relentless on defense. They really are a team in every essence. They hang out together and socialize. They pride themselves as being as competitive as possible, academically and in sports."
In his 11th season as head coach, Griseto knows what it takes to build a winning program. A St. Rita graduate of 1970, he couldn't play basketball in high school because his father died when he was a sophomore and he had to go to work. He got bit by the coaching bug while playing basketball on the Union League boys club traveling team.
He coached baseball at Westinghouse, then basketball at Notre Dame, then basketball and baseball at St. Ignatius, then returned to Westinghouse to coach basketball and baseball from 1986 to 1998. His 1996 team went 29-5 and finished third in the Class AA tournament.
After assisting old friend and former Westinghouse coach Roy Condotti for one year at Homewood-Flossmoor, he landed at Jones. It has been quite a change from the time he had five Division I players at Westinghouse, played in the Red-West and contended for a state championship. But he is enjoying the challenge and the experience.
"The opportunity to come into a brand new school that was focusing on academics, to start something from scratch, was a challenge that I was anxious to accept," Griseto said. "They hadn't had teams before when it was Jones Commercial. I also helped to build baseball and cross-country programs. We want to be as competitive as we can."
Jones, located at 606 S. State Street, plays its home games in basketball, soccer and baseball at old Near North High School near Clybourn and Larrabee. Last fall, the boys cross-country team finished seventh in the state meet. And the baseball team has qualified for the Elite Eight in Class 3A in three of the last four years.
Griseto thinks his basketball team has what it takes to be more than competitive in the Class 3A sectional at St. Ignatius, which also includes the highly rated host school.
"I thought we could be pretty good this season," Griseto said. "They want to win and go out as seniors playing the best they can play. This is their chance to make a name for themselves."
He knows it isn't easy for a Blue Division team to compete against Red Division or Catholic League or suburban schools. He has been there. The difference is mostly about depth and athleticism, not calculus and physics.
"Two years ago, we played Marshall in the first game of the city playoff and got pounded. They went on to win state. Last year, we beat Kenwood in the first game, then lost to Harper," Griseto said. "But those teams weren't as good as this team. I tell them they have to get better with every game--and they have. We have made a lot of strides."
Griseto describes Chico and Taylor as his two mainstays. Chico, a 5-foot-10 senior point guard and a three-year starter, averages 16 points and eight assists per game. He is the team leader and a defensive catalyst.
Taylor, a 6-foot-2 senior, also is a three-year starter. He averages 17.5 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks per game. "He is our rock on defense," the coach said.
Other starters are 6-foot senior Jauquis Frazier-Buckman (7 ppg), 6-foot-4 senior Max Puidak (6 ppg, 8 rpg) and 5-foot-10 senior Courtney Copeland (16 ppg). Puidak is in his first year of basketball after being recruited off the baseball team by Griseto. Another baseball player, 5-foot-11 junior Vincent Lindsey, is the first player off the bench.
"The addition of Puidak has helped by giving us more size," Griseto said. "Lack of size has the potential to hurt us. We have to play defense and keep our opponents off the offensive boards. Our objective is to get a clean layup off the fast break."
It isn't a neighborhood team. The players come from the East Side, Englewood and Jefferson Park. But they hang out together between class periods or after school or they gather to eat wings at Harold's Chicken, a block from the school on Wabash Ave.
"We thought we'd be better than the past few years," Chico said. "We're a bunch of seniors who play hard, with passion and poise, work together and never quit. We're looking forward to playing against Red Division teams in the playoff. We're proud that we can be successful and let the underclassmen play in the Red next year. We've seen Simeon and Whitney Young. I wish we could play them to see where we stand."
So does Taylor, whose brother played at Bogan. He acknowledges that the addition of Puidak takes up space in the paint and relieves the pressure on him and his 32-inch vertical leap to get rebounds. And he agrees that the chemistry that his senior class has built up since their freshman year has been a key factor in their success.
"We've been together for four years. We don't have distractions from other classes," Taylor said. "And, yes, I recommend the wings at Harold's."